Sappho and Phaon: in a series of legitimate sonnets, with thoughts on poetical subjects, and anecdotes of the Grecian poetess
IT must strike every admirer of poetical compositions, that the modern sonnet, concluding with two lines, winding up the sentiment of the whole, confines the poet's fancy, and frequently occasions an abrupt termination of a beautiful and interesting picture; and that the ancient, or what is generally denominated, the LEGITIMATE SONNET, may be carried on in a series of sketches, composing, in parts, one historical or imaginary subject, and forming in the whole a complete and connected story.
With this idea, I have ventured to compose the following [Page 6] collection; not presuming to offer them as imitations of PETRARCH, but as specimens of that species of sonnet writing, so seldom attempted in the English language; though adopted by that sublime Bard, whose Muse produced the grand epic of Paradise Lost, and the humbler effusion, which I produce as an example of the measure to which I allude, and which is termed by the most classical writers, the legitimate sonnet.
To enumerate the variety of authors who have written sonnets of all descriptions, would be endless; indeed few of them deserve notice: and where, among the heterogeneous mass of insipid and laboured efforts, sometimes a bright gem sheds lustre on the page of poesy, it scarcely excites attention, owing to the disrepute in which sonnets are fallen. So little is rule attended to by many, who profess the art of poetry, that I have seen a composition of more than thirty lines, ushered into the world under the name of Sonnet, and that, from the pen of a writer, whose classical taste ought to have avoided such a misnomer.
Doctor Johnson describes a Sonnet, as "a short poem, consisting of fourteen lines, of which the rhymes are adjusted by a particular rule." He further adds, "It has not been used by any man of eminence since MILTON." [Page 8] Sensible of the extreme difficulty I shall have to encounter, in offering to the world a little wreath, [Page 9] wreath, gathered in that path, which, even the best poets have thought it dangerous to tread; and knowing that the English language is, of all others, the least congenial to such an undertaking, (for, I believe, that the construction of this kind of sonnet was originally in the Italian, where the vowels are used almost every other letter,) I only point out the track where more able pens may follow with success; and where the most classical beauties may be adopted, and drawn forth with peculiar advantage.
Sophisticated sonnets are so common, for every rhapsody of rhyme, from six lines to sixty comes under that denomination, that the eye frequently turns from this species of poem with disgust. Every school-boy, every romantic scribbler, thinks a sonnet a task of little difficulty. From this ignorance [Page 10] in some, and vanity in others, we see the monthly and diurnal publications abounding with ballads, odes, elegies, epitaphs, and allegories, the non-descript ephemera from the heated brains of self-important poetasters, all ushered into notice under the appellation of SONNET!
I confess myself such an enthusiastic votary of the Muse, that any innovation which seems to threaten even the least of her established rights, makes me tremble, lest that chaos of dissipated pursuits which has too long been growing like an overwhelming shadow, and menacing the lustre of intellectual light, should, aided by the idleness of some, and the profligacy of others, at last obscure the finer mental powers, and reduce the dignity of talents to the lowest degradation.
As poetry has the power to raise, so has it also the magic to refine. The ancients considered the [Page 11] art of such importance, that before they led forth their heroes to the most glorious enterprizes, they animated them by the recital of grand and harmonious compositions. The wisest scrupled not to reverence the invocations of minds, graced with the charm of numbers: so mystically fraught are powers said to be, which look beyond the surface of events, that an admired and classical writer, describing the inspirations of the MUSE, thus expresses his opinion:
That poetry ought to be cherished as a national ornament, cannot be more strongly exemplified than in the simple fact, that, in those centuries when the poets' laurels have been most generously fostered in Britain, the minds and manners of the natives have been most polished and enlightened. Even the language of a country refines into purity by the elegance of numbers: the strains of WALLER have done more to effect that, then all the labours of monkish pedantry, since the days of druidical mystery and superstition.
Though different minds are variously affected by the infinite diversity of harmonious effusions, there are, I believe, very few that are wholly insensible to the powers of poetic compositions. Cold must that bosom be, which can resist the magical versification of Eloisa to Abelard; and torpid to all the more exalted sensations of the soul is that being, whose ear is not delighted by the [Page 13] grand and sublime effusions of the divine Milton! The romantic chivalry of Spencer vivifies the imagination; while the plaintive sweetness of Collins soothes and penetrates the heart. How much would Britain have been defecit in a comparison with other countries on the scale of intellectual grace, had these poets never existed! yet it is a melancholy truth, that here, where the attributes of genius have been diffused by the liberal hand of nature, almost to prodigality, there has not been, during a long series of years, the smallest mark of public distinction bestowed on literary talents. Many individuals, whose works are held in the highest estimation, now that their ashes sleep in the sepulchre, were, when living, suffered to languish, and even to perish, in obscure poverty: as if it were the peculiar fate of genius, to be neglected while existing, and only honoured when the consciousness of inspiration is vanished for ever.[Page 14]
The ingenious mechanic has the gratification of seeing his labours patronized, and is rewarded for his invention while he has the powers of enjoying its produce. But the Poet's life is one perpetual scene of warfare: he is assailed by envy, stung by malice, and wounded by the fastidious comments of concealed assassins. The more eminently beautiful his compositions are, the larger is the phalanx he has to encounter; for the enemies of genius are multitudinous.
It is the interest of the ignorant and powerful, to suppress the effusions of enlightened minds: when only monks could write, and nobles read, authority rose triumphant over fright; and the slave, spell-bound in ignorance, hugged his fetters without repining. It was then that the best powers of reason lay buried like the gem in the dark mine; by a slow and tedious progress they have been drawn forth, and must, ere long, diffuse an universal [Page 115] lustre: for that era is rapidly advancing, when talents will tower like an unperishable column, while the globe will be strewed with the wrecks of superstition.
As it was the opinion of the ancients, that poets possessed the powers of prophecy, the name was consequently held in the most unbounded veneration. In less remote periods the bard has been publicly distinguished; princes and priests have bowed before the majesty of genius: Petrarch was crowned with laurels, the noblest diadem, in the Capitol of Rome: his admirers were liberal, his contemporaries were just; and his name will stand upon record, with the united and honourable testimony of his own talents, and the generosity of his country.
It is at once a melancholy truth, and a national disgrace, that this Island, so profusely favored by [Page 16] nature, should be marked, of all enlightened countries, as the most neglectful of literary merit! and I will venture to believe, that there are both POETS and PHILOSOPHERS, now living in Britain, who, had they been born in any other clime, would have been honoured with the proudest distinctions, and immortalized to the latest posterity.
I cannot conclude these opinions without paying tribute to the talents of my illustrious country-women; who, unpatronized by the courts, and unprotected by the powerful, persevere in the paths of literature, and ennoble themselves by the unperishable lustre of MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE!
The story of the LESBIAN MUSE, though not new to the classical reader, presented to my imagination such a lively example of the human mind, enlightened by the most exquisite talents, yet yielding to the destructive controul of ungovernable passions, that I felt an irresistible impulse to attempt the delineation of their progress; mingling with the glowing picture of her soul, such moral reflections, as may serve to exite that pity, which, while it proves the susceptibility of the heart, arms it against the danger of indulging too luxuriant fancy.
The unfortunate lovers, Heloise and Abelard; and, the supposed platonic, Petrarch and Laura, have [Page 18] found panegyrists in many distinguished authors. OVID and POPE have celebrated the passion of Sappho for Phaon; but their portraits, however beautifully finished, are replete with shades, tending rather to depreciate than to adorn the Grecian Poetess.
I have endeavoured to collect, in the succeeding pages, the mostliberal accounts of that illustrious woman, whose fame has transmitted to us some fragments of her works, through many dark ages, and for the space of more than two thousand years. The merit of her compositions must have been indisputable, to have left all cotemporary female writers in obscurity; for it is known, that poetry was, at the period in which she lived, held in the most sacred veneration; and that those who were gifted with that divine inspiration, were ranked as the first class of human beings.
Among the many Grecian writers, Sappho was the unrivalled poetess of her time: the envy she excited, [Page 19] the public honours she received, and the fatal passion which terminated her existence, will, I trust, create that sympathy in the mind of the susceptible reader, which may render the following poetical trifles not wholly uninteresting.
SAPPHO, whom the ancients distinguished by the title of the TENTH MUSE, was born at Mytilene in the island of Lesbos, six hundred years before the Christian era. As no particulars have been transmitted to posterity, respecting the origin of her family, it is most likely she derived by little consequence from birth of connection. At an early period of her life she was wedded to Cercolus, a native of the isle of Andros; he was possessed of considerable wealth, and though the Lesbian Muse is said to have been sparingly gifted with [Page 22] beauty, he became enamoured of her, more perhaps on account of mental, than personal charms. By this union she is said to have given birth to a daughter; but Cercolus leaving her, while young, in a state of widowhood, she never after could be prevailed on to marry.
The Fame which her genius spread even to the remotest parts of the earth, excited the envy of some writers who endeavoured to throw over her private character, a shade, which shrunk before the brilliancy of her poetical talents. Her soul was replete with harmony, that harmony which neither art nor study can acquire; she felt the intuitive superiority, and to the Muses she paid unbounded adoration.
The Mytilenians held her poetry in such high veneration, and were so sensible of the hour conferred on the country which gave her birth, that [Page 23] they coined money with the impression of her head; and at the time of her death, paid tribute to their memory, such as was offered to sovereigns only.
The story of Antiochus has been related as an unequivocal proof of Sappho's skill in discovering, and powers of describing the passions of the human mind. That prince is said to have entertained a fatal affection for his mother-in-law Stratonice; which, though he endeavoured to subdue it's influence, preyed upon his frame, and after many ineffectual struggles, at length reduced him to extreme danger. His physicians marked the symptoms attending his malady, and found them so exactly correspond with Sappho's delineation of the tender passion, that they did not hesitate to form a decisive opinion of the cause, which had produced so perilous an effect.[Page 24]
That Sappho was not insensible to the feelings she so well described , is evident in her writings but it was scarcely possible, that a mind so exquisitely tender, so sublimely gifted, should escape those fascinations which even apathy itself has been awakened to acknowledge.
The scarce specimens now extant, from the pen of the Grecian Muse, have by the most competent judges been esteemed as the standard for the pathetic, the glowing, and the amatory. The ode, which has been so highly estimated, is written in a measure distinguished by the title of the Sapphic. POPE made it his model in his juvenile production, beginning --
Addison was of opinion, that the writings of Sappho were replete with such fascinating beauties, and adorned with such a vivid glow of sensibility, [Page 25] that, probably, had they been preserved entire, it would have been dangerous to have perused them. They possessed none of the artificial decorations of a feigned passion; they were the genuine effusions of a supremely enlightened soul, laboring to subdue a fatal enchantment; and vainly opposing the conscious pride of illustrious fame, against the warm susceptibility of a generous bosom.
Though few stanzas from the pen of the Lesbian poetess have darted through the shades of oblivion: yet, those that remain are so exquisitely touching and beautiful, that they prove beyond dispute the taste, feeling, and inspiration of the mind which produced them. In examining the curiosities of antiquity, we look to the perfections, and not the magnitude of those relics, which have been preserved amidst the wrecks of time: as the smallest gem that bears the fine touches of a master, surpasses the loftiest fabric reared by the [Page 26] labours of false taste, so the precious fragments of the immortal Sappho, will be admired, when the voluminous productions of inferior poets are mouldered into dust.
When it is considered, that the few specimens we have of the poems of the Grecian Muse, have passed through three and twenty centuries, and consequently through the hands of innumerable translators: and when it is known that Envy frequently delights in the base occupation of depreciating merit which it cannot aspire to emulate; it may be conjectured, that some passages are erroneously given to posterity, either by ignorance or design. Sappho, whose fame beamed round her with the superior effulgence which her works had created, knew that she was writing for future ages; it is not therefore natural that she should produce any composition which might tend to tarnish her reputation, or lessen that celebrity [Page 27] which it was the labour of her life to consecrate. The delicacy of her sentiments cannot find a more eloquent advocate than in her own effusions; she is said to have commended in the most animated panegyric, the virtues of her brother Lanychus; and with the most pointed and severe censure, to have contemned the passion which her prother Charaxus entertained for the beautiful Rhodope. If her writings were, in some instances, too glowing for the fastidious refinement of modern times; let it be her excuse, and the honour of her country, that the liberal education of the Greeks was such, as inspired them with an unprejudiced enthusiasm for the works of genius: and that when they paid adoration to Sappho, they idolized the MUSE, and not the WOMAN.[Page 28]
"Sappho undertook to inspire the Lesbian women with a taste for literature; many of them received instructions from her, and foreign women increased the number of her disciples. She loved them to excess, because it was impossible for her to love otherwise; and she expressed her tenderness in all the violence of passion: your surprize at this will cease, when you are acquainted with the extreme sensibility of the Greeks; and discover, that amongst them the most innocent connections often borrow the impassioned language of love.
"A certain facility of manners, she possessed; and the warmth of her expressions were but too well calculated to expose her to the hatred of some women of distinction, humbled by her superiority; and the jealousy of some of her disciples, who happened to be the objects of her preference. To this hatred she replied [Page 29] by truths and irony, which completely exasperated her enemies. She repaired to Sicily, where a statue was erected to her; it was sculptured by SILANION, one of the most celebrated staturists of his time. The sensibility of SAPPHO was extreme! she loved PHAON, who forsook her; after various efforts to bring him back, she took the leap of Leucata, and perished in the waves!
"Death has not obliterated the stain imprinted on her character; for ENVY, which fastens on ILLUSTRIOUS NAMES, does not expire; but [Page 30] bequeaths her aspersions to that calumny which NEVER DIES.[Page 33]
- I. INTRODUCTORY.
- II. The temple of Chastity.
- III. The Bower of Pleasure.
- IV. Sappho discovers her Passion.
- V. Contemns its Power.
- VI. Describes the characteristics of Love.
- VII. Invokes Reason.
- VIII. Her Passion increases.
- IX. Laments the volatility of Phaon.
- X. Describes Phaon.
- XI. Rejects the Influence of Reason.
- XII. Previous to her Interview with Phaon.
- XIII. She endeavours to fascinate him.
- XIV. To the Aeolian Harp.
- XV. Phaon awakes.
- XVI. Sappho rejects Hope.
- XVII. The Tyranny of Love.
- XVIII. To Phaon.
- XIX. Suspects his constancy.
- XX. To Phaon.
- XXI. Laments her early Misfortunes.
- XXII. Phaon forsakes her.
- XXIII. Sappho's Conjectures.
- XXIV. Her Address to the Moon.
- XXV. To Phaon.
- XXVI. Contemns Philosophy.
- XXVII. Sappho's Address to the Stars.
- XXVIII. Describes the fascinations of Love.
- XXIX. Determines to follow Phaon.
- XXX. Bids farewell to Lesbos.
- XXXI. Describes her Bark.
- XXXII. Dreams of a Rival.
- XXXIII. Reaches Sicily.
- XXXIV. Sappho's Prayer to Venus.
- XXXV. Reproaches Phaon.
- XXXVI. Her confirmed Despair.
- XXXVII. Foresees her Death.
- XXXVIII. To a Sigh.
- XXXIX. To the Muses.
- XL. Visions appear to her in a dream.
- XLI. Resolves to take the Leap of Leucata.
- XLII. Her last Appeal to Phaon.
- XLIII. Her Reflections on the Leucadian Rock before she perishes.
- XLIV. Sonnect Conclusive.
SONNET INTRODUCTORY "eloquently chaste!" Cf. "elegantly chaste": SONNET XIII "tuneful numbers": Metrical periods or feet; lines of verse (OED). See Pope, l. 5. "Elysian bow'rs,": Idyllic world where souls of those honored by the gods spent an after-life of revelry (OED). SONNET II "coaeval": Of equal antiquity (OED). "Chastity divine!": Probably Diana, goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon. "deathless roses": Flowers associated with Venus. "Studded with tear-drops petrified by scorn,": Cf. SONNET XXXIX "vestals": Virgins who tend the sacred flame of Vesta; marked by chastity and purity (OED). 17. Cf. Spenser, The Faerie Queene, II, xii, 72: where Guyon first views Acrasia in the "Bowre of blis." SONNET III "hyacinth's divine perfume;": See "Chastity divine": SONNET II "tyrant passion": Cf. "in the heart the Tyrant lives enshrin'd": SONNET XVII 8, and and "Love the tyrant": SONNET XXXVIII, 13. SONNET IV "Phaon's beauteous eyes,": Cf. Pope, l. 2. "my chill'd breast in throbbing tumults rise?": Cf. Pope, l. 126. "Mute, on the ground my Lyre neglected lies,": Cf. Pope, l. 6. "tuneful maids": Cf. SONNET VIII "dulcet numbers": Cf. "dulcet flutes": SONNET XII, 9 and "dulcet tones": SONNET XIV, 9. "barb'rous": Cruelly harsh (OED). SONNET V "sacred Temple": See SONNET II SONNET VI "the tender gaze": See "the tender passion": p. 23. "the speaking eye": Highly expressive (OED); cf. SONNET XXVIII SONNET VII 29. Cf. sonnet XI "Now passion reigns and stormy tumults roll -- So the smooth Sea obeys the furious wind!": Cf. SONNET XXII "Philosophy": Cf. SONNET XXVI SONNET VIII "each aching vein": Cf. "each gasping vein": SONNET XXXVI "Thus steals the languid fountain of my heart": Cf. "Love steals unheeded o'er the tranquil mind": SONNET XVII, 1. "tuneful maids" Cf. IV, 10. SONNET IX "rude children of fantastic birth; Where frolic nymphs, and shaggy tribes of mirth": Possibly refers to satyrs. SONNET XVII "the fierce Lord of Lustre rushes forth": Cf. "stream of living lustre": SONNET XLIII SONNET X "DANG'ROUS to hear": Cf. Addison's comments on reading Sappho: pp. 24-5. "O! Reason! vaunted Sovreign of the mind! Thou pompous vision with a sounding name! Can'st thou, the soul's rebellious passions tame!": Cf. Anne Batten Cristall, "An Ode": "But reason, truth, and harmony are vain. / No power man's boundless passions can restrain," ll. 23-4; from "Poetical Sketches" (1795). "wreath of fame": The laurel wreath, signifying fame and accomplishment. "A visionary theme!": Cf. "the loftier theme": SONNET XLIII SONNET XII "tessellated pavement": A rich pavement of mosaic work (OED). "dulcet flutes": Cf. "dulcet numbers": SONNET IV SONNET XIII "A roseate wreath": Cf. "wreath of fame": SONNET XI SONNET XIV "crysolite": Precious stone; yellow-green (OED). "White as the downy swan; while round my waist Let leaves of glossy myrtle bind the vest": Swans and myrtle were held sacred to Venus and were used as emblems of love (OED). Cf. "myrtle drest": SONNET XV "elegantly chaste!": Cf. "eloquently chaste": SONNET I SONNET XIV "Aeolian harp": A stringed instrument adapted to produce musical sounds on exposure to a current of air (OED). Cf. Coleridge, "The Eolian Harp" (1796). "Philomel": Nightingale. "dulcet tones": Cf. "dulcet numbers": SONNET IV SONNET XV "cassia": 51. Poetic use: a fragrant shrub or plant (OED) SONNET XII "With od'rous wreaths of constant myrtle drest,": Cf. "leaves of glossy myrtle bind the vest": SONNET XIII, 10. "porphyry": Poetic use: a beautiful and valuable purple stone (OED). SONNET XVI "visionary charms": See "visionary charms": Pope, l. 147. "luxury of woe!": See Della Crusca (Robert Merry), "Ode to Anna Mathilda": "And lose the Luxury of Woe?" from The British Album (1790), vol. I, p. 78. This phrase stands as the consummate expression of the poetry of sensibility and is echoed throughout the last two decades of the eighteenth century and beyond. Cf. Wm. Wordsworth, "Sonnet, On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress" (1787): "And my heart was well'd to dear delicious pain"(4). Also, cf. SONNET XVIII SONNET XVII "Love steals unheeded o'er the tranquil mind,": Cf. "Thus steals the languid fountain of my heart": SONNET VIII "the Tyrant": Cf. "tyrant passion": SONNET III SONNET XVIII "dark my bosom's tint": Sappho was dark-skinned. "Ah! why is rapture so allied to pain?": Cf. "luxury of woe": SONNET XVI SONNET XIX "Nereides": Sea-nymphs (OED). "Circe": Witch who turns Odysseus' men into swine. With the help of Hermes, Odysseus resists her spell and compels her to free his men; he then spends a pleasant year in her company. "daemons": A supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men (OED). "Scythia": Northern lands; today's Russia and Scandinavia. "sue": To appeal to; to pursue; to woo (OED). SONNET XXII 65. Cf. Pope, ll. 70-88. 66. Cf. "the fierce tempest of my fev'rish soul": SONNET VII SONNET XXIII "AEtna's scorching sands": Highest active volcano in Europe; located in eastern Sicily. Cf. "Aetna's scorching fields": Pope, l. 11. "Idalian": Idalium was a town in Cyprus where Aphrodite was worshipped (OED). "cypress wreaths": Cyprus branches or sprigs were used at funerals; symbolic of mourning (OED). Cf. "wreath of fame": XI SONNET XXIV "meek Orb!": Cf. "meek-ey'd moon": SONNET XLIII "inbred": Innate (OED). "soothing dream": Cf. "While potent fancy form'd a soothing dream": SONNET XL SONNET XXV "a mould'ring tomb": A common image in elegies of the period, recalling works of the "graveyard school" of the 1740s. SONNET XXVI "lour": A gloomy look (OED). "Philosophy": Cf. "vain Philosophy": VII "lonely bow'r": Cf. "bow'r of Pleasure": III "the bird of sorrow": Probably the nightingale. SONNET XXVII "the speaking eye": See "the speaking eye": VI SONNET XXIX "Hybla": A town in Sicily, celebrated for the honey produced on the neighboring hills; poetic association: honied, sweet (OED). "No more shall Sappho to your grots repair; No more your white waves to her bosom swell": Cf. "No more . . . / No more": Pope. ll. 234-5. SONNET XXX "rude": Harsh, severe, discordant. "the Syren band": Fabulous monsters, part woman, part bird, who were supposed to lure sailors to destruction by their enchanting singing (OED). "Breathe soft, ye winds; rise slow, O! swelling wave! Lesbos; these eyes shall meet thy sands no more: I fly, to seek my Lover, or my Grave!": Cf. Pope, ll. 258-9. SONNET XXXI "Love's frequent sighs the flutt'ring sails shall swell,": Cf. "Cupid for thee shall spread the swelling sails": Pope, l. 253. "Triton's": Sea-deities. "And Venus, thron'd within her opal shell, Shall proudly o'er the glitt'ring billows ride!": Venus/Aphrodite was often depicted riding on a mussel shell. According to one accout of her birth, she was the daughter of Uranus (the Sky) whose sexual organ, cut off by Cronos, fell into the sea and begot the goddess (Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology). SONNET XXXII "idle dalliance": Amorous play. SONNET XXXIII "Aetna's burning crest": Cf. "Aetna's scorching sands": SONNET XXIII SONNET XXXIV "Myttellenian": Mytile was a city on Lesbos; see Robinson: p. 22. "Echo": Nymph who pined away for Narcissus until she became nothing but a voice. "the zone divine": Possibly a sexual zone. "immortal as the Nine": The Muses. SONNET XXXV "Erebus": A dark region beneath the Earth through which the dead must pass to reach Hades. "Farewell!": See Pope, l. 113. "Or coldly this, farewell,": See Pope, l. 114. "shade": Ghost, soul in the Underworld. SONNET XXXVI "haunted bow'rs": Cf. "bow'r of Pleasure": III "each gasping vein": Cf. "each aching vein": VIII SONNET XXXVIII "Lethe": River of forgetfulness in the Underworld. "Love the tyrant": Cf. "tyrant passion": III 101. Cf. Pope, ll. 163-82. 102. The Muses. SONNET XXXIX "Aonian maids divine": The Muse of lyric or erotic poetry. "Erato": The island of Paros was famous for its white marble (OED). "parian marble": 105. Cf. "tear-drops petrified by scorn": II, 12. "pearls of pity": 106. Cf. Sappho's vision in Pope, ll. 185-98. SONNET XL Cf. "That brings to madd'ning love, no soothing dream": SONNET XXIV "a soothing dream": See Robinson's note on the leap of Leucata: p. 29. "the Leucadian deep": Cf. Pope, ll. 205-225. SONNET XLI Cf. "meek Orb": SONNET XXIV XLIII "meek-ey'd moon": Cf. "fierce Lord of Lustre": SONNET IX "stream of living lustre": Cf. "visionary theme": SONNET XI